Thursday, October 21, 2010

Are bison, elk, and deer meat magical cancer-preventing meats?

Ok, this is a weird question. But it comes from a true story:
My friend visited the farmer's market, where he encountered a vendor selling organic bison, elk, and deer meat. The vendor told my friend that he should buy and eat lots of this meat, because "Native Americans ate this meat and they never got cancer." My friend believed him and bought some of the meat.  Do you believe this argument?
Oh my goodness, where do I start?  There are at least 3 major problems with the meat vendor's claim.
1. How does the vendor know that Native Americans never got cancer?  Did he exhume a bunch of old bodies and autopsy them for signs of cancer?  We have very poor records about Native American health (at least back when they ate bison, etc.). The records we do have involve deaths due to infectious diseases that the Europeans brought over, like smallpox and typhoid fever.  Fact is, nobody back then bothered to write down whether Native Americans got cancer or not.
2.  Most cancers arise in people who are older than 50 or 60 years (see the NCI statistics Granted, there are some cancers that pop up younger, but by and large cancer rates only spike later in life. Most Native Americans did not live that long! They died in hunts, in battles, and from smallpox and typhoid fever, etc.  The vast majority of them did not get old enough to face dying from cancer.
3.  Even if a Native American did in fact get cancer, and they did die from it, and someone happened to write it down in a diary or other record, they would not have called it "cancer." Do you really think the men and women living on the frontier in the 1800's had the technology or medical knowledge to diagnose and describe cancer? No! They might have said "he fell ill and could not eat, and soon passed." Or maybe "she was afflicted with a wasting disease, became very pale and thin, and she did not make it through the harsh winter."
Bottom line: this vendor's argument is total bulls--t.  Of course, I said nothing about the actual merits of bison, elk, and deer meat.  They are very lean red meats that make a great substitute for beef, as long as you don't overcook them (because they are so lean). So, if you like them, eat them. But don't buy them based on this ridiculous argument. 

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